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Statement Made at Press Conference – 5 June 2015

Here’s the full text of the verbal statement I made to the press today, in response to Justice Collins’ judgment.

Thank you for coming today.

I wish it were Lecretia here today talking to you instead of me. Her fine legal mind would do a better job of interpreting Justice Collins’ judgment for you, and explaining his ruling. Her natural tact and grace would be better suited to delivering her feelings on the ruling. No matter how strong her view one way or the other, she would approach it in an understated way and with humility. But most of all, I wish Lecretia were here today talking to you because it would mean she was still alive. She died too young. She is hugely missed already and her family and friends feel an unbearable loss. She was a treasured wife, sister, daughter, aunt, and friend. She was an incredible lawyer, and an incredible person. We will miss her terribly.

When Lecretia began down this path, she did so in her typically understated style. After watching a documentary on Terry Pratchett late last year, who sought death with dignity before he lost his mind to Alzheimer’s, she sent a note to her friends describing the positive frame of mind she was in regarding her upcoming chemo, and included a link to the video, saying “I may become active in this area.” Earlier this year she contacted Andrew Butler at Russell McVeagh and asked if he would be willing to represent her. That was when her case began.

Lecretia knew that with her brain cancer’s growth being unpredictable there was a risk she might suffer before she died under conditions unbearable to her. She wanted to be able to choose to die at a time and manner of her own choosing, with the assistance of a physician. She wanted to squeeze out as much value and quality of her life as she possibly could, before she entered a phase of no quality, and of no value to her. In order to do that, she would need a doctor’s help to die.

She knew that under New Zealand law, there was an assumption this was unlawful, but that it was untested in criminal law, and that the law could be viewed as ambiguous on this issue. Parliament had refused to deal with assisted dying in the past, so, inspired by the successful case of Carter v Canada, she sought to achieve her ends through the High Court.

Lecretia sought a ruling in two parts. She wanted the High Court to declare that assisted dying was not unlawful under the Crimes Act, and that her physician would not be prosecuted if they helped her to die. This ruling was the only thing that could help her achieve the death she wanted within her lifetime without a parliamentary law change. If that were not possible, she sought a declaration that the Crimes Act was inconsistent with her rights and fundamental freedoms. This wouldn’t change the law, and it wouldn’t help her in her own circumstances, but she knew it might help compel Parliament to change the law and help others in future, who find themselves in a similar situation to Lecretia. After all, what happened to Lecretia could happen to me, or to you, or to someone you love. It could happen to anyone.

Justice Collins provided an interim results judgment on the first part – the Crimes Act interpretation – on Tuesday so that Lecretia could be aware of the outcome and know whether she might lawfully access physician assisted dying. Sadly, Justice Collins declared in that interim judgment that a physician helping Lecretia to die in accordance with her wishes would continue to risk prosecution.

On Tuesday night I relayed Justice Collin’s decision to Lecretia. I explained she would not be able to seek assistance to die, and nature would need to run its course, and that her mother and I would do everything we could to make her comfortable and pain free. We would accede to the wishes she had laid out in her Advance Directive and act out her wishes in accordance with the law.

Lecretia listened to me as I explained the decision. Even though she couldn’t speak, she was able to share her feelings through her expression. There was no mistaking her response. She was hurt and disappointed. She fixed me with a stare with her good eye as if to say: isn’t this my body? My life? Her breath slowed and she turned her head away. Her reaction utterly broke my heart.

Our hope turned to the second ruling – a declaration of inconsistency with Lecretia’s rights and fundamental freedoms under the Bill of Rights. As stated, this would not help Lecretia, but in future, it might help others.

We have received that ruling in the judgment today and we are grateful for the efforts made by Justice Collins to release his decision so quickly. We are also grateful to the legal team who brought Lecretia’s case to this point, and to the Crown and the interveners for their contributions to the case. And as the debate has also played out in the media, we’re thankful that even those that didn’t share Lecretia’s views engaged in a robust and civil discourse which, though spirited, didn’t once descend into the personal. We were delighted to find ourselves in the midst of a mature and passionate debate, even as we vigorously disagreed on most things.

We are dismayed by Justice Collin’s judgment. In some ways, I am relieved that Lecretia was unconscious and unresponsive when we received it, so she didn’t have to hear the news. Justice Collins found in our favour in relation to the evidence before him, but his interpretation of the purpose of the law meant he could not find aid in dying was available to Lecretia nor could he find that not having access to aid in dying was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights.

Justice Collins found that while palliative care had made great advances, it was not able to relieve all suffering, including for pain and psychological and emotional suffering. He emphasised the importance of individual autonomy and dignity. He found that Lecretia was not vulnerable and that her wish to have access to assisted dying was, quote “a rational and intellectually rigorous response to her circumstances” unquote. He said it was important to ensure doctors did not make a decision based on their assumptions about people’s vulnerability as this would devalue respect for individual autonomy. He found that without assisted dying Lecretia was put at risk of premature death through suicide, for fear that she would be incapable of doing so when her condition deteriorated, which engaged her right to life. He accepted evidence that, under the status quo, others who are terminally ill have taken their lives prematurely while they were still able to, robbing them of a longer life.

Yet despite these findings, and acknowledgement of the potential suffering and risk of early death for those with a terminal illness, Justice Collins felt unable to grant the declarations Lecretia sought. A core reason was that, in his view, the provisions under the Crimes Act required protection of not only the vulnerable, but even for people like Lecretia, who are not vulnerable, and whose wish for assisted dying was a rational response to their terminal illness and potential suffering. He did so, based on his understanding of the New Zealand case law and notwithstanding that that approach to the law is not shared in other jurisdictions including the UK, Canada and South Africa. For us, as a family, it is terribly disappointing that the Judge was prepared to go as far as he did but not take this last crucial step.

The judgment has starkly highlighted that the status quo is far from ideal; that people are at risk of intolerable suffering and are at risk of ending their lives earlier than they would otherwise. Although we did not get the rulings we sought, the judgment is very clear: the law as it is, is paternalistic, overly-protective and rooted in the past. It is not the law as it ought to be.

Justice Collins was clear that it is for Parliament to address a change in the law. Through Lecretia’s efforts we now know the law. So Parliament now knows what has to change.

The New Zealand parliament has twice voted down assisted dying legislation introduced via private member’s bill at the first reading, once in 1995 and again in 2003, preventing the proposed legislation from getting to select committee stage where the facts and overseas evidence could be exhaustively reviewed. This issue has not been given a fair hearing in parliament. In effect, New Zealand’s politicians have twice voted not to have a debate properly informed by the findings of a select committee. At the present time, there is no assisted dying bill proposed by the government or in the members’ bills ballot.

Support for the legalisation of physician assisted dying in New Zealand has been consistently shown to be between 70-80% of the New Zealand public by various polls.

That support has been reflected by the number of messages and good wishes Lecretia has received. We have received hundreds of messages from people from all walks of life and all political persuasions, supporting Lecretia’s cause. We have had messages from doctors and palliative care professionals and nurses offering their support but afraid to speak out for fear of angering their employers. We have had dozens of stories from people who have lost loved ones in awful circumstances and under substandard care – people who have needlessly suffered in the gap between palliative care’s rhetoric and its reality. We have had messages from young people who had never considered the issues before, but now have no doubt that this law needs to be addressed.

In the end, Lecretia was fortunate that her death happened quickly, and that she was cared for by some very fine health professionals from hospice and DHB. Others are not so lucky. Lecretia believed those people should have choices, and that the law should respect those choices and not tell competent, rational adults that they don’t know their own mind. She would not support a law change that endangers the vulnerable. She would support heavy penalties for those that would attempt to coerce or exploit the vulnerable. But she believed it is possible for a law to be crafted that protects the vulnerable, while not being overly protective of those who wish to make fully-informed choices about the end of their life.

Let’s not give into fears and speculation and say it’s too hard. Let’s not say the risks are too great. We can learn from other countries – we do not need to panic over sensational stories from opponents – we do not have to copy those countries outright. But let’s not say people must suffer against their will because we’re afraid of change. It’s not impossible. We are not a nation of cynics. We are a nation of dreamers and we are free to have a vision and to build the nation we want. Lecretia and I are optimists. We believe the law can be shaped to do what we all want it to do.

We must respect the autonomy and dignity of terminally ill people like Lecretia and say yes, we respect your wish to go your way. Anything else is paternalistic. Anything else says I know better than you. We do not have the unique perspective of the one dying. We can empathise with their suffering, but we cannot truly know it. None of us living has died before. None of us is an authority. None of us has all the answers. I say – let the person who is dying choose the manner in which they die. If they request help, and a doctor agrees to help, who are we to have laws to stand in the way of that compassionate act? The intent of both parties is to end suffering. It just so happens that sometimes, when that suffering is so great, the only release from that suffering is death. That is not murder. That is not suicide. That is mercy.

I am calling on our 51st parliament to work across party lines to bring together a select committee to work through the issues and to hear from the public. The public reaction to Lecretia’s case has been huge. I am calling on our elected representatives to have the courage to debate this issue, to show a quantum of the courage my wife has shown these past months. I implore our Prime Minister, who only two weeks ago said publically that he would welcome a debate – to actually initiate that debate and to not defer it and wait for a private member’s bill which may not see it debated for months or years. This debate needs to happen now. Prime Minister, I urge you to give the public what they want and start the debate. I urge you to follow my wife’s example and to be a courageous leader. I urge you to lead on this issue. It is long overdue. Now is the time. Let us give Lecretia her legacy.

Thank you.

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34 Comments

  1. Powerful words… We are overdue for a proper parliamentary debate and I dearly hope Lecretia has provided that impetus. Kind thoughts to you all

  2. Dear Matt – what a wonderful statement, and delivered at a time of terrible suffering and loss for you. It is so generous of you to do this in Lecretia’s name and for all NZers. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for you.

    I didn’t know Lecretia personally, but often thought how much I would have loved her company. She will always be remembered by so many people. I hope that her legacy will be honoured by the continuance of this debate in a civil and mature fashion. Arohanui Kate

  3. Powerful piece, a courageous piece of leadership and oratory on your darkest day – thank you for sharing these posts to help us learn about this important issue. Sorry for your loss, kia kaha.

  4. Yes its time for a debate on this…its long overdue…powerful words and with you 100%…Blessings to you all …R.I.P Lecretia…strong and brave lady

  5. Eloquent and intelligent in the face of extreme grief. I salute you both for bringing this debate to the nation albeit that you would have wished it was not because of Lecretia. RIP.

  6. Keep up the good work Matt. Lecretia will be so proud of your courage and determination to see her wish come true. I certainly believe the majority of New Zealanders would support the cause and those that don’t have probably never seen someone they love suffer needlessly from a terminal illness. Kia kaha. We are all behind you.

  7. Thank you for sharing your story. When I first saw the news, I didn’t know how I felt about this topic, mortality is very personal and it is not something most of us care to think about. This blog helped me to truly understand what this means and how choice is important in our most vulnerable moments. Lecretia Seales is a name I will never forget. Thinking of you and your family at this time and very sorry for your loss.

  8. As both a law student, and the 19 year old daughter of someone who suffered as you so concisely put it “in the gap between palliative care’s rhetoric and its reality”- I have followed Lecretia’s battle with a kind of fervour I have never felt before in regards to New Zealand politics. I understand the legalities and reasoning behind the Justice Collin’s decision, and find it comparable to many other social issues that have been fought out in the Supreme Court/House of Lords- only for judges to find themselves unable to legislate, leaving the task to our politicians who find it preferable to debate non-issues over pressing bioethical and social justice matters. However, when the majority of the public are dissenting from the status quo- it is time for the status quo to change. Having volunteered at a hospice for 2 years, I also understand the grim reality of palliative care and the end of one’s life- your attempt at much needed social reform is awe-inspiring. Lecretia, may your beautiful soul rest peacefully now. I will forever aspire to practice as you did- with integrity and raw passion for the law. Matt, you are not just mourning your love and life as you knew it, but also the sadness of faltering in this attempt. Lecretia’s battle did not end as her life did. Bless you both for bringing this into the forefront of New Zealand’s attention. Arohanui xx

  9. Dear Matt,

    I am left inspired and deeply moved by the way you and Lecretia have stood for what really matters to you and the poise and courage you displayed today. I am proud to be your colleague.

    Love Julie

  10. Courage, steadfastness, humility, strength, passion, eloquence, power, leadership and determination are qualities rarely found together in one single individual yet both Lecretia and you have displayed all of these qualities and more. The powerful deliverance of your response to Justice Collins’ judgement is a testimony to the true nature of the person you are. Lecretia would be so proud. If there is one single good element to Lecretia’s passing it has to be that she did not suffer the end that she so vehemently feared. New Zealand is behind you 100% to push our government into debating and resolving the issues Lecretia has put forth. Go forth gently in peace Matt and Family, you have given your all and we as a Nation salute you. Much Love and condolences to you all.

  11. Most individuals make every choice throughout their lives with free will and must live with the consequences. Why do religious groups whose belief system is at odds with mine get to dictate my ‘end of life’. That has largely formed legislation on this issue in the past. Why should we allow this to continue unchallenged?

  12. I haven’t met you in life mat yet knew your lovely wife via a dear friend Hilary…can’t even start to think what you are going through and simply want to share….look after yourself in this time, take time to look after self.

    Love Glenn McHardie

  13. As Humans we should have the right to decide. Lecretia was a voice for all that suffer and they should be allowed that choice. Cancer is cruel and painful in so many ways. Why do we have to let the sufferers suffer ? Whos choice is that ? Really who has the right to Judge ?

  14. Well said Matt. Let’s hope that parliament finally takes note. I don’t know you personally but are sending all my love to you and your family xxx

  15. Very well put. But the govt has said they won’t engage. What can we do to build on the momentum Lecrecia has initiated?

  16. Eloquent and inspirational. Thank you for summing it up so well. It is Mercy we are looking for. Glad Lecretia passed without hearing the last ruling and that she didn’t suffer to the extent that she feared. You have both been very brave. Thank you for taking these actions. It is time for the Government to step up and take the challenge you have tasked them with. I’m sorry for your loss, Lecretia was an amazing woman who obviously touched many lives.

  17. Under what must have been blinding heartbreak having just lost Lecretia, I salute you for the powerful deliverance of your speech and the courage you displayed.

    Lecretia was nothing short of heroic and deeply ethical. And for the countless others in her position, keep banging that drum, Matt, until the government stands up and listens.

    I am with you on this.

  18. Lecretia’s efforts were not in vain….she made a huge difference in an extremely sensitive area….one day Lecretia’s Choice will become an accepted choice whether it is followed or not!

  19. It’s been a long time coming Matt and I’m sorry for your loss old mate my thoughts are with you and hope for a positive outcome for all those affected by similar circumstances

  20. Articulate and intelligent. Thank you for continuing the debate in this incredibly important matter. It is time New Zealand stepped up to the plate in this issue. We are a country of heroes and dreamers who have stood up on so many social justice issues. God bless you and Lecretia for standing up and fighting for our rights. RIP Lucretia. X

  21. Having a law in place which recognizes advanced directives will be a sensible option. This immediately removes some of the threats that the anti assisted death groups talk about. If the law requires the patient to make an advanced directive when cognitively intact, as Lecretia effectively had done, then it is their choice. This would mean that relatives, even those with power of attorney, could not simply have relatives euthenased.
    I have seen many people spend days dying in a state of unconsciousness, Chayne-Stoke breathing and incontinence. Their families saying that the patient had never wanted to be like that. Fortunately for me these have all been patients not my relatives.
    The law needs to change and change soon. As Matt said there are health care professionals who want to see this change and will support patients like Lecretia – I am one of them.
    I am a nurse not a lawyer but I suspect that a law that allows advanced directives but prevents the culling of the disabled and the elderly is achievable. All we need is for Parliament to do what Judge Collins has given them to do.
    It is encouraging that Lord Carey and Desmond Tutu, both retired Anglican archbishop’s, have stated that they support assisted death. In Tutu’s case it was because he say Nelson Mandela lose all his dignity.
    Lecretia lost her court case and her life in a
    matter of days. I can’t imagine how her family
    and friends feel. She can’t be brought back to life but the other thing she fought for can be achieved by Parliament doing what is known to be supported by the majority of New Zealanders.
    Making assisted death legal for those who want it does not make it compulsory for those who don’t.
    What Lecretia, Matt and the legal team started is very important. I never met Lecretia but I won’t forget her or what she started.

  22. Our hearts go out to you Matt, and Lecretia’s family at this difficult time. Your commentary is so succinct and we stand with her and you in pleading with our ‘powers that be’ to be brave enough to debate this very sensitive issue.
    Lecretia’s bravery has not been in vain. Her legacy will live on as she has brought this topic to the forefront, not just to the politicians but to us, the community, many of us who have suffered along with loved ones and felt so helpless in the journey they’ve had to undertake.
    Our thoughts and best wishes continue to be with you.

  23. Thank you for sharing and i believe it is time this debate was put to a legally binding referendum.

  24. I am in the same position at 33, my wishes and requests are the same when the time comes. .. I may only have few years but I’m prepared to battle. Please let me know how I contribute and or continue this fight. I have a 3 yr old son with adhd and autism when I lose my faculties I do not wish that my child receives less attention because of my illness. My son needs and deserves a significant amount of support and attention and as I deteriorate with this diseases I already struggle to provide and cater for his needs. Please advise how i can contribute?